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IR reforms: evolutionary claims fudge fundamental differences

By Jim McDonald - posted Friday, 12 August 2005

The Federal Government has been at pains to suggest its proposed industrial relations changes have evolved from the Keating Government's reforms. The Minister for Workplace Relations, Kevin Andrews, has denied these changes are radical.

Andrews has used Keating’s landmark 1993 speech to the Australian Institute of Company Directors to support the “evolutionary” spin. But his quotes are deceptively selective.

In his media release, Mr Andrews used these words from Keating's speech:


Let me describe the model of industrial relations we are working towards. It is a model which places primary emphasis on bargaining at the workplace level within a framework of minimum standards provided by arbitral tribunals. It is a model under which compulsorily arbitrated awards would be there only a safety net.

This safety net would not be intended to prescribe the actual conditions of work of most employees, but only to catch those unable to make workplace agreements with employers. Over time the safety net would inevitably become simpler. We would have fewer awards, with fewer clauses.

Crucially, Keating went on to say: "For most employees and most businesses, wages and conditions of work would be determined by agreements worked out by the employer, the employees and their union." So unlike Andrews, Keating was talking about collective bargaining, not enforcement of individual contracts.

Keating also mentioned the AIRC’ s role as a tribunal that "helped employers and employees reach enterprise bargains, which kept the safety net in good repair, which advised the Government and the parties of emerging difficulties and possible improvements, but which would rarely have to use its compulsory arbitral powers. Instead, parties would be expected to bargain in good faith" (ACCI, February 2004, "ALP Should Match Keating Vision on Industrial Relations Reform") (pdf file 101KB). The Government is working towards stripping the commission of all these roles.

The Coalition's IR policy violates the Keating reforms across the board, right down to the removal of good faith bargaining provisions.

The current minister is not the first to work over Keating's speech. Former IR Minister, Peter Reith, also relied on this extract in his second reading speech on the Workplace Relations Bill, and it is found in the Liberal Party's response (pdf file 298KB) to the ALP's IR policy (pdf file 459KB) launch in August 2004.


Reith also neglected to acknowledge Keating was referring to collective bargaining, because the Government's legislation was designed to make a clear break with the traditions of collective workplace regulation. Current plans aim to take the 1996 changes even further away from the 1993 reforms.

In another example of fudging the Howard Government's radical policy, Andrews again tried to manipulate Keating's words to underplay the effect of reducing employee protections offered by awards to just five allowable matters, compared to the matters covered under the 1993 Industrial Relations Reform Act, and to the Workplace Relations Act 1996 which significantly reduced what awards might cover into 20 allowable matters.

Minister Andrews claims the ALP’s current platform would allow for re-introduction of industry-wide wage claims. ALP IR policy actually states: "Labor introduced enterprise bargaining and will retain it as the central focus of the bargaining system" (emphasis added).

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Article edited by Geoffrey Zygier.
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About the Author

Jim McDonald was high school and TAFE teacher in the 70s, an active unionist for 20 years, a union official for a decade, and taught industrial relations courses for 15 years at undergraduate and postgraduate levels at USQ and Griffith Universities. He stood for The Greens in Wide Bay during the 2010 Federal election and for Noosa in the 2012 Queensland election. He is presently a Queensland Greens Spokesperson and is a delegate to the Queensland Greens Council.

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